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Teresa – Part Four - Authorship & Giving Back

I hear that strong person inside telling me what to do, and most of the time I listen. Sometimes I don’t and I suffer the consequences, but at least I consciously know what choice I’ve made.

Authorship means the capability of making choices, and the recognition that the ability to choose one’s destiny lies within oneself.

 

One of the most significant shifts that occurs during the road back is the birth of authorship – the ability to act, which is engendered by the will to live. Central to the rediscovery of one’s aliveness is the growing belief that it is possible to make choices that affect one’s destiny. Like dawn in a forest, the light may enter slowly and quietly, but it raises one’s spirit and is rarely forgotten. Authorship means the capability of making choices, and the recognition that the ability to choose one’s destiny lies within oneself. For those who recover, it is this connection with their inner oracle that becomes paramount. As Teresa describes it:

I’m finally letting myself realize that [my mother] doesn’t have the capability to relate because she’s never left that zone where she feels comfortable.

Teresa has now permitted herself limited contact with her mother. She feels it’s important for her and her children, but it is rarely satisfying. Teresa finds her mother unable to focus long enough or deeply enough to sustain meaningful conversation, and although Teresa sometimes feels the desire to spill her heart and describe in detail the journey she has made, she knows her story would fall on unreceptive ears.

She doesn’t talk about what’s real and she hides a lot, but I’ve wanted to attempt to have a functional relationship with her.

It’s disappointing, and occasionally it reminds her of the isolation that was so painful to her as an adolescent, but over time, Teresa has made a fundamental change. Through years of therapy and study, trial and error, Teresa has created a rich network of support and understanding. Her mother is no longer the center of her world or the source of her redemption. Teresa has internalized the respect and the positive regard others have shown toward her, and her mother’s failings are rendered more or less harmless.

The hate—the hate I felt for her—began to consume me. [But] it can eat at you more than at the other person. I don’t hate her anymore. I mostly feel sorrow and compassion. It was a big thing when I discovered that I really don’t have to like my mother as a person. I love her, but I don’t care to be around her all that much. I get understanding and recognition elsewhere.

Teresa had now been a practicing nurse for the past ten years. She has become certified in a number of medical specialties and has enjoyed a wealth of work experience. Happy and self-assured, her present life seems the polar opposite of her early years.

The final part of Teresa’s return to life is reflected in a private and unassuming act of giving back.  During rounds in the hospital, Teresa quietly performs a little ritual expressing appreciation and gratitude.

When I look at the [medical] charts, I read about these ladies— what [their lives are like], what’s happened to them, the difficulty they’re in — and I think, “God, you know, I could be there today if I hadn’t been so lucky.” I go down to the unit and talk to them. I want them to know that there’s strength in them: you can hear it in their voices. I want them to know that we all have that drive in us to make it.

 

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Teresa, Part Three – The Critical Leap: Recognizing the Need for Support

I realized two important things: that I keep picking people who aren’t the least bit interested in anyone else, just themselves; and that I always thought I had to do something drastic to be noticed. I started thinking, “Maybe around different people I wouldn’t have to do that!”

The ability to recognize potential sources of support constitutes a major breakthrough. When suicidal trances last many years, they virtually prohibit interpersonal exchange. When one views life as a long, desperate, and solitary struggle, confidence withers that anyone else cares, or that anyone would even want to. Recognizing and utilizing support becomes not only a skill to be developed, but also a critical act of faith.

During the next ten years Teresa proceeded to work full-time, have two children, and consecutively marry two abusive and addicted husbands. There were many fights and she continued to consider suicide. Teresa was now an intelligent, highly capable woman who was still driven by the unrequited need to have someone notice her pain. She was locked in a desperate loop of violent marriages, and she reasoned that her only recourse for herself and her children was to leave.

One night, I drank an entire gallon of wine and I was having seizures on the floor. I didn’t really want to die; I just wanted my husband to know the pain I was in. I wanted him to know I was alive. I thought, well, if I did die, then maybe it would be significant and then my kids would never go through what I had. Well, when I woke up, I decided, “That’s enough.” I took the kids and left.

In deciding where to go, Teresa took the first step toward recognizing the need for support. Just as when she boarded the bus for Prescott many years before, Teresa had little idea of what lay ahead of her.

It was very scary. One evening, I went to the Women’s Shelter. Nobody would know where I was, and I needed rest from the abuse and the fighting. It was just as scary as leaving my mom. I was calm outwardly, but underneath I was petrified. That’s when the biggest portion of my recovery came.

Teresa was genuinely starting over. Her decisions would be short-term ones for a while. She would take one step, assess the results, and then take another.

The people there were very supportive and caring. It took about three weeks, and then one morning, I found myself thinking, “My God, I really like myself.” I realized that it was okay with just me noticing me. That was enough.

I realized two important things: that I keep picking people who aren’t the least bit interested in anyone else, just themselves; and that I always thought I had to do something drastic to be noticed. I started thinking, “Maybe around different people I wouldn’t have to do that!”

At the women’s shelter, Teresa enjoyed both formal and informal contact with the staff. She was assigned a therapist, but there were many others who would stop and talk during the day just to see how she was faring. With time, Teresa began to feel the effects of the respect and positive regard she was receiving.

My first initial feeling was, ‘I’m not weird. If I was weird, they wouldn’t be talking to me and acting like they cared. I must be okay!’ I began to feel important. I don’t think I had had that feeling since kindergarten.

I remember feeling affirmed.  I remember talking to the social worker there, Lois. I said some horrible things to her about my abuse, and I expected her to do what everybody did—close down, get a chalk-white face, and just get me out of there as soon as possible. But she cried!  As time went on, I’d hear them say to me, over and over, until it began to sink in, “ You’re perfectly fine, and a wonderful person, and your thinking is clear about such and such. We have a lot of confidence in you.” It felt real, and over time, I would call on it whenever I was feeling hopeless or like giving up.

 

Look for:  Teresa, Last Part - Giving Back, Loving Wisely

Waking Up, Alive is now Available on Kindle

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Teresa, Part Two - A Fresh Start

Teresa was still a young teenager when she bought a one-way ticket to Prescott.  Somewhere beneath the abuse and neglect, there was a kernel of recognition, even at her young age. She knew she had to leave. Despite the absence of a plan, she knew a change was essential to her survival.

It was a thirteen-hour bus ride. We had a layover from Idaho at Reno and I stayed in the station, waiting. I was still very calm and strong, and so far everything was okay. I had my money and my clothes—everything I needed. I was proud of myself.

Breaking free from the suicidal context reflects a desire to disconnect from the oppressiveness of the past and hope for a fresh beginning. It is a leap of faith motivated by the necessity for change. Although a person’s plan may not be clear at the beginning, many describe having an inner certainty—a “knowing”—that they are on the right course. Often, they pare down their possessions, simplify their lives, and try to discover just what happened to them and why. In making a fresh start, people report having a glimpse of a new world and a new possibility…where people are able to care, and have the courage to show it

At some point, this big and sleazy guy came over. He was trying to get me to go somewhere with him. I didn’t know what was going on then. I do now. There was this elderly couple. The man must’ve been in his seventies. He and his wife just came over next to me. He pulled out a knife and began cleaning his nails with it, kinda nonchalantly, suggesting to this guy that he might want to leave!

Then they took me to dinner. It was very comforting and nice. I felt even happy for a little bit there. We played cards and ate. I was happy ‘cause they noticed me, and I wasn’t being polite or “good.’’ I started thinking, “Maybe I should go with them!” I think that was the first time since kindergarten that I felt that about someone.

Teresa created a new life. Just off the bus, she saw a Help Wanted sign in a restaurant window, applied, and was offered the job that afternoon. The next day, she enrolled in school.  Teresa wanted a new start, and within a week, she was back in school, had joined the track team, and was taking courses at the local community college.

 

Dissolving the Suicidal Context

It is essential to dissolve the suicidal context in order to rebuild one’s life. This may take a variety of forms, but essentially, one must radically alter one’s relationship to the environment of despair in which the suicide attempt occurred. On the road back to life, people learn to choose alternatives to old routines and to the people associated with them.

Teresa’s trials weren’t over.  The long shadow of neglect and abuse in her family of origin would hover over her primary relationships, but these challenges would set the scene for her final victory over suicidal pain and despair.  (To be continued).

Look For - Teresa, Part Three – Claiming Her Life

 

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Chris - The First Steps (Part Two)

"In the profile of every recovery from attempted suicide, there is a moment on which one’s entire fate balances." R. A. Heckler, PhD

*        *        *

-I know your little girl. She’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever met.  You know your husband.  Do you really want him to raise her?-

 

(Continued from March 26th Blog)

‘I don’t even want you to tell me [how you feel] right now, [said the attending physician]. Then he said, ‘and I’m gonna tell you a secret. You see, in this state, it’s illegal to attempt suicide, and they send you to the state hospital for a month if you try, plus you have to pay a fine. You have to handle all the legal ramifications and it’s nasty. So I admitted you under a diagnosis of food poisoning, and you should know that my career’s on the line and you are holding it in your hands’—and he squeezed my hand. [He said] ‘I’m gonna have to trust you that you’re gonna act differently than I expect you want to right now.’

In minutes, the years of isolation that surrounded Chris were gently pierced.

As he’s talking, I realize that my actions are going to affect him. He says, ‘I don’t expect you to want to live for a while. I know how you are feeling, but I also know your husband and your little girl. She’s the most beautiful creature I’ve ever met. He lets that sink in a little, and then he says, “You know your husband. Do you really want him to raise her?” The question had never entered my mind! I knew this was the voice of reason.

Patient and gentle, her admitting physician seemed to be the very archetype of the Good Doctor. Skillfully, undemonstratively, he empathized with her dilemma while challenging her to poke through her suffering and grasp a wider perspective.

The doctor was right. I still felt I wanted to die. I knew I still wanted to die, but I was also angry. I realized there was no way in hell that I wanted my husband to raise my daughter. I didn’t want her to feel as powerless and abandoned as I felt. It felt like he was giving me a task I could accomplish even though I felt so bad.

I knew nothing about psychological innards at that point, but two things had happened all of a sudden that were new. First of all, he didn’t put me down for wanting to leave my husband. Most everyone else seemed to think I was a bad person for wanting to leave him. And then, even though I still felt real dead inside, there was this other thing out here, separate from myself, which was a task worth trying to accomplish.

In the profile of every recovery from attempted suicide, there is a moment on which one’s entire fate balances. It is the first step, a hesitant and humble, but palpable beginning. First steps are critically important, because they reflect the birth of a nascent feeling that life can somehow unfold in a new and different way.

I still felt like ‘I don’t want to live’” but at the same time, I thought, ‘if I’m gonna raise my daughter, I’m gonna have to live. That means I’m gonna have to get through these feelings.’ It was so early, though, and I didn’t trust my thoughts, and I didn’t trust myself being alone. So I did the hardest thing of all.

In such a small town, there was only one place where she felt she might get through the day. Chris was nervous how she’d be received, but there was no alternative. Years later, she could still feel how fearful she had been.

There was this hardware store in the center of town where everybody came. It had a potbelly stove and tables, you know, and you could go in and have tea. That’s where I’d hang out a lot of the time, and so did everybody else. Everyone would come in, have lunch together, and talk. I knew everybody in that town and I knew that everyone heard what I had done the night before. But in spite of that, I knew that I had to have people around me if I was going to make it through that day, and so I took my daughter with me. God, I can feel the fear as I talk about it.

I went into the store and I talked to the woman who owned it. I told her I needed to hang out all day. 'Could I do that? Will that be okay?'

She said, ‘Yes.’ And then she said, ‘And if anybody says anything, I’ll kick them out!’

 

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Courage

“The original definition of courage when it first came into the English language, from the Latin word ‘cor’, meaning ‘heart’, was to tell the story of who you are with your whole heart.”  – Brené Brown, TED Lecture, 2010

 

Some years ago I did what looked like a crazy thing.  Over a three year period, as I traveled the United States for my work as a trainer of therapists, I put out the word that I wanted to interview people who had attempted suicide, and specifically, people who, through their own hard work, and the assiduous care of others, reclaimed the qualities of balance, perspective, connectedness and happiness in their lives.  People who came back to life, literally from death’s door.

Partly, it came from my training as a researcher.  I was taught that if you wanted to understand a deep part of human experience, in this case psychological and emotional healing, it was essential to listen to and chronicle the stories of those who had truly been there; who had powerfully experienced it's entire arc. This is called participatory research and it’s less about statistics and more about “stepping into someone else’s shoes” in order to derive a true sense of what it’s like.

And, partly, it came from a quirky optimism I seem to have, that arose both in working with others, but also in my own life; a recognition that when we are pushed to the edge, up against the wall…really challenged by significant life issues, that that wall represents the edge of the box we are trapped in; the box we rummage around in that generates a lot of suffering for ourselves, and most often, for our loved ones.  So, bad news-good news.  The bad news is that we suffer, often caught in this box of limited perspective and constricted narratives.  The good news, is that when we are up against the edge, the inside wall, we are only a hairs-breath away from jumping out of the box altogether!

So, I traveled the country, sitting with people, in their homes or in nature, often for three, four, or five hours at a time, listening to and recording their stories, sometimes harrowing and unflinching in detail. But listening particularly to the parts of the story that detailed how people began to embrace life again, and humbly, little by little, came to believe again – in possibility, in others, and, blessedly, in themselves.   I discovered that these deeply personal stories, were also universal stories.  I learned that in listening without prejudice or fear, these stories shed much light on precisely how all of us can bring ourselves back to life…not only from the brink of life and death; not just in a suicidal context, but with regard to the dizzying array of other challenges all of us face in our lives.  Those I interviewed told their stories, with a full and open heart, both to help others, and so that one day, others wouldn’t have a story like that of their own to tell.  I was blown away by their courage. Still am.

A final note:  In writing Waking Up, Alive, it was not my intention to create another trend or another series of identities through which people can define themselves. In fact, it is my fervent hope that as we move further into the 21st Century, people will define themselves in terms of their strengths and their potential rather than their wounds. I have undertaken this work in order to break the silence to which so many—be they survivors of suicide attempts or the enormous number of people who secretly contemplate the act—have sentenced themselves, and to open communication between those who have attempted and those who haven’t. Ultimately, this book was written for everyone, for each person bears his or her share of pain, and everyone has felt stuck at one point or another in his or her life. I chose to write  Waking Up, Alive so that we may remember that there always exists a “yes” after what seems to be the final “no.”

I hope that in some small measure these words may alleviate suffering in the mysterious world in which we live.

 

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